By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A public hearing at the Brushfork Armory allowing citizens to weigh in on a proposed 19.7 percent water rate increase had sparse attendance Tuesday evening.
Members of the West Virginia Public Service Commission met at the armory Tuesday to allow local residents to give input on a proposed 19.7 percent rate increase to West Virginia American Water customers.
Only 16 people were present at the hearing, several of whom were local water company employees.
The rate increase would raise service rates for water customers by an average of $8.13 a month if approved and could go into effect on Oct. 13, 2013 at the earliest.
In addition to customers who receive water directly from West Virginia American Water, customers served by the Oakvale Road Public Service District, Bluefield Public Waterworks, and Lashmeet Public Service District would also be impacted as these entities buy water from West Virginia American Water.
Charles E. Hampton of Princeton told the PSC officials rate costs are already too much for him and his family of three.
“My wife said I shouldn’t come tonight because it won’t make a difference and I see many others felt the same way,” he said. “Costs are more than I can bear. I am on a fixed income. I had to quit my job to take care of my wife when she became ill. I am at a point where I don’t know how we will be paying the bills if the costs increase. Water is essential to life. My wife and I do everything to conserve water and I am somewhat distressed at this point. I don’t know what else we can do.”
Hampton said the company requested the increase to pay for capital improvements, but Hampton said he felt that money should be paid for from company revenues and not by raising rates on customers.
“I just want to ask the commission to look hard at this and how utilities are managing their funds,” he said. “It is easy to say we need or want things, but is this really necessary? How much money does the company lay aside that could be used to pay for these improvements?”
Blaine Braithwaite, executive director of the South Bluefield Neighborhood Association, said upwards of 40 percent of residents in the area are on a fixed income and cannot afford continued increases to utility rates.
“Our city pays the highest utility rates in the state,” he said. “We need the PSC to aggressively monitor these rate increases. I think it is time we look at how we monitor these costs. I do not believe the current system provides enough details to help auditors ascertain what is a fair rate. We need to analyze how our regulatory environment can ensure rate payers in West Virginia get a fair rate and not an inflated rate.”
Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, said several constituents had contacted him with concerns about continued rate increases in the area.
“With the execution of jobs, utility rates are the most frequent issue my constituents bring to me,” Shott said. “So many come to me with these concerns and anecdotal evidence, especially those living on low incomes. I have heard of people turning off their heat or skipping their dose of medication to pay for utility rate increases. Perhaps in southern West Virginia where we are experiencing so many layoffs in the coal industry, the economy is even more severe than other places. It is extremely important to me and my constituents that the PSC goes through this proposal with a fine tooth comb.”
As a small business owner, Shott said he has noticed increases in his own water rates.
“I compared my water bills recently and from five years ago,” he said. “Even though my water usage has declined my water bill has gone up three times in five years. My urgent request to you is to take this case very seriously to prove the company had a need for such a large amount.”
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org